Traditionally associated with trendy trench coats lined with a checkered pattern, Burberry was born as a visionary brand in textile design and the gabardine inventor. Between ups and downs, fame due to famous films and association with rioters, this powerful fashion house has always been talked about.
Thomas Burberry was born in Surrey in 1835, his passion for fashion started at an early age, and he was apprenticed to a local draper's shop. At 21 years old, he opened his business, and everyday outfits inspired his collections. However, he was an innovator by heart and started experimenting with materials. He was an outdoor lover; hence he focused on clothes suitable for fishing and hunting. He wasn't satisfied by the range of waterproof clothing of the time. He partnered with British cotton manufacturers aiming to produce a weatherproof textile appealing to the constantly growing middle-class.
THE INVENTION OF GABARDINE - the 1890s
Probably a few people know one of the greatest inventions of this brand, gabardine. Thanks to his knowledge in textile design and his perseverance in experimenting Thomas Burberry stood out as one of the most revolutionary minds in fashion. Gabardine is indeed the first waterproof fabric ever created then patented in 1888. This textile is still used for the iconic Burberry trenches and is a perfect alternative to rubber materials. The versatility of this fabric caught the attention of several explorers and aviators. The aeronaut Claude Grahame-White chose Burberry's invention for the suit worn during the record-breaking flight between London and Manchester. Also, Dr Fridtjof Nansen picked gabardine for the outfits selected for his arctic pole exploration. The RAF Officer Edward Maitland wore a Burberry gabardine suit during his hot air balloon flight from Crystal Palace to Russia. In no time at all, this innovative fabric has conquered everyone, starting from the bravest explorers to the ladies of the London upper class.
PRORSUM - LOGO CREATION
In 1901 Thomas Burberry urged to have a good logo fully expressing its founder's vision and ambitions. The brand runs a contest asking participants to design a logo, and the winning one takes inspiration by two of the many armours displayed in London at the Wallace Collection. Indeed, it features an equestrian knight and the motto "Prorsum" a Latin word meaning forwards. There's nothing better than this statement term to define an innovative brand like Burberry.
THE TRENCH BIRTH - 1900s
The Burberry's trench is, for sure, an iconic piece in fashion history. Not everyone knows that it is not a modern invention. This specific coat dates back to 1912 and is still positively trending. The first jacket by Thomas Burberry was the tielocken coat, closing with just one strap and a buckle and featuring a single button on the collar. Overall, the 1910s was a very hectic decade for Burberry. The brand moved to larger London premises situated in Haymarket and designed by the well-known architect Walter Cave. A few years later, Mr Burberry during the first World War Burberry pioneered the trench coat. Despite being now one of the most craved fashionable items, trendiness was the least sought feature, back in time. Thanks to its functionality and resistance, the British Army chose this as the official uniform, and a few changes made it perfect for armed forces activities. For example, epaulettes suspended military equipment like gloves, grenades hanging on D-rings, and gun flaps provided additional protection allowing water to slip off the outwear. Nowadays, the plaid pattern is the most prized element in a Burberry item. However, this stylish detail was introduced by the brand only in the 1920s as a lining for the iconic trench. The knight logo and black, red, and camel pattern, called Nova check, distinguishes a Burberry iconic outerwear from any other similar beige ones. Thanks to its success, it immediately became a registered trademark. The introduction of this decorative motif aimed at enriching this garment's design, hence, functionality and aesthetic started blurring.
FROM BATTLEFIELD TO MOVIE SCREENS - the 1950s
Until the 1940s the trench coat was not so popular. It was considered a garment suitable for outdoor activities and soldiers. Nevertheless, its appearance on the silver screen in the 1950s made its way into many people's fashion whist list. Stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Humphrey Bogart wore it in movie scenes. The checked pattern made this Burberry garment easily identifiable. The trench appeared in the film Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany's and paved its way into fashion history becoming popular ever since.
BURBERRY PARISIAN CRAZE - the 1960s
After the films' triumph showing Burberry coats, the British brand rode the wave bringing its trench to the pinnacle of success. The weatherproof features of Burberry's gabardine earned the brand a royal warrant by HM Queen Elizabeth II. In 1965 one in five exported jackets from the UK was a Burberry trench coat. Today, we can find anything covered in the stylish Nova pattern. Nonetheless, this print started being applied to other garments than trench coats after a Burberry craze exploded in Paris. In fact, in 1967 a Parisian store manager decided to give a touch of colour to the total-beige shop window showcasing trenches. He turned one of the coats inside out, therefore showing the plaid motif. The Nova print craze immediately spiked, and it was promptly applied to umbrellas and cashmere scarves. Burberry manages to sell all its news checkered items in a blink of an eye.
HARD TIMES - EARLY 2000s
If today a Burberry item is the must-have for all the fashion lovers, this brand experienced a terrible drop in sales in the mid-1990s. Things got worse when in 2002 the British soap opera performer Daniella Westbrook flaunted a total Nova checked outfit while running some errands with her daughter. The child looked like a mini Burberry doll seating in a Nova printed stroller. The very class-conscious British media immediately spread the pictures throwing a shade of tackiness on this iconic label. High-end even stores stopped selling Burberry items. However, worldwide sales soared, and British vending made up just 15% of 2004 trading. During the mid-2000s, this fashion house experienced a complete change in the target market. Wealthy people lost their interest in the brand, but the working-class and the checked pattern entirely enchanted the UK and European soccer fans. Hooligans started wearing Burberry scarves, due to their association with violent acts, many pubs around the UK started banning people wearing this plaid item.
It is incredible how exciting yet facts conceal behind many fashion houses' history, often mistakenly associated only with glitz and VIP's romantic-chic whims.
In the next article of this mini-series on Burberry, you will discover how two of the most talented contemporary fashion designers have brought Burberry back into vogue. We will find out how this British brand has made its way as a visionary in customer service and experience design.
from top left: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair (1948), Brigitte Bardot in Babette Goes to War (1959), Casablanca (1942).